Life Sentences
The U.S Tour of Günter Grass

By David Streitfeld
Sunday, August 12, 2007

At the end of Günter Grass's 1963 novel Dog Years, a mysterious company starts selling "miracle glasses" to teenagers. When the kids put them on, they see with urgent clarity many things that have been kept hidden. They see their parents, as if in a newsreel, performing murderous acts of violence.

Sometimes the parents do the killings themselves, sometimes they are bystanders who decline to protest or officials just following orders. No difference, writes Grass.

"Aiding and abetting. Smoking cigarettes and looking on while. Certified decorated applauded murderers ... blowing on rubber stamps. Sometimes mere signatures and wastebaskets. Many roads lead to. Silence as well as words can. Every father has at least one to hide. Many lie buried curtained soiled, as if they had never happened until in the eleventh postwar year miracle glasses appeared on the market."

This was Grass's great theme, played out in dozens of books and hundreds of speeches, interviews and lectures over half a century: German guilt, and the German refusal to acknowledge it. He assailed the appointment of a onetime Nazi Party member as chancellor in 1966, asking why someone else couldn't have been found, someone who was free from taint German history, he asserted in 1990 after the Wall came down, meant the Germans, even those born long after the war, didn't deserve to be unified. The taint was in the blood.

So it was a great gift to his foes -- and he has annoyed and offended many -- when Grass handed them their own miracle glasses. As his autobiography was being published in Germany last summer, he revealed that he had spent a few months at the end of the war in the combat arm of the Waffen-SS, the elite volunteer troops whose responsibilities also included running the concentration camps.

The novelist was denounced as a hypocrite, not so much for what he had done while in the SS -- nothing, it seemed -- as for the fact that decades had gone by without hism bothering to mention it. Some said he was no longer the conscience of Germany; others, more cruelly, that he never was.The furor made Peeling the Onion a runaway bestseller in Germany, which infuriated more people, who accused him of orchestrating a publicity stunt.There were demands that his Nobel Prize, awarded in 1999 for portraying "the forgotten face of history," be rescinded.

Grass said his silence always haunted him, which is perhaps why Dog Years now seems full of clues. The central character is Walter Matern, who stresses how he wasn't like all the other Germans during the war: "In an emergency I would defend every Jew with my life." Walter sees himself as an avenger, not an accomplice. But where was he when his half-Jewish friend Eddie Amsel was set upon by nine storm troopers?

I was unable to help, Walter admits, but to make amends he names eight of the culprits, even tracks them down. The ninth thug is both harder and easier to find. It's Walter himself, something he had tried to forget, taken pains to disguise from the beginning. They all hid their faces when they beat poor Eddie, Walter explains, because "it's the style: when you want to teach a lesson, you hide your face."

Walter has a point. Tremendous talent enabled Grass to become the most famous and acclaimed German writer since Thomas Mann, but talent is never quite enough. As a young boy during the war, Grass almost entered a fiction contest run by a Nazi children's newspaper. A near miss, he later realized; if he had won, the stain would have lasted, and all his lessons would have gone untaught.

There are other precedents. Norwegian Nobelist Knut Hamsun's reputation never recovered from his support of the Nazis, and the memoir he wrote to explain himself only made things worse. Jorge Luis Borges is widely believed to have missed out on the Nobel because he shook hands with a couple of right-wing Argentine generals. Would the Swedes have given it to a Waffen-SS man, however brief his enlistment?

This summer, Peeling the Onion was published in English to rave reviews that celebrated it as one of the best memoirs of our time and at least one savaging (by the translator Michael Hofmann, in the Guardian) that implied it was the worst. Grass came to New York for his first American tour in 15 years, ready if not exactly eager to discuss not the guilt and punishment of Germany but of himself. He was met with fierce questions, abuse, cheers. The one thing no one debated was whether the controversy was good for business. Every appearance sold out.


"This story was always in my mind but I needed to reach a special age to write it, to allow the past to come into focus," Grass told me. "Ask me what happened two weeks ago, I can't tell you. But 1943, that I can remember."

Well, kind of. Peeling the Onion, which covers the writer's youth and apprenticeship, is full of auctorial doubt. Incidents blur and dissolve as Grass struggles to recall what he was thinking, feeling or doing five, six and seven decades ago. Often he doesn't succeed.

Not that he lets himself off the hook. Far from it. The Danzig synagogues burn and the Jewish shops are looted, and the 11-year-old watches without wonder. A beloved uncle defends the city's Polish Post Office from German takeover, is captured and executed. The family stops speaking of him. Grass's Latin teacher disappears, probably denounced by a student. Grass's sleep is untroubled.

"A believer till the end," he calls himself. "No doubts clouded my faith; nothing subversive like the clandestine distribution of leaflets can let me off the hook; no G?ring joke made me suspicious. No, I saw my fatherland threatened, surrounded by enemies."

Grass and other Germans were taken in, he says, but they also wanted to be seduced. It's human nature to follow, to obey orders. He allows himself only this slender, partial exculpation: "It was a dictatorship. It's much more terrible not to ask questions in a democracy."

In movies -- and, very rarely, real life -- there's a singular moment when the hero is sparked into rebellion. Bookish people like to believe books can do this. Grass read All Quiet on the Western Front as a youth. The Nazis recognized the power of Remarque's tale of the futility and horror of war; they banned it. Grass loved the book but went to war anyway.

"I don't have this naive belief that literature can change the world," he said. "It can only change it a little bit, and even then it takes a long time. Look at this country. It's been a long time since the Enlightenment, and yet you're still arguing about whether Darwin was right."

Grass will be 80 in October, although he looks younger. In Onion he lists the three great desires that drove him forward as a young man: the hunger for sex, for food, for art. He's well-fed now, and at his age the sexual life ¿ he waved a hand dismissively. But art remains. In addition to the writing of prose and poetry, he makes etchings and lithographs and draws and paints. One of the events he attended here was a party at the Steven Kasher Gallery to launch an exhibit of his prints. (The show was supposed to be accompanied by the U.S. publication of the first two volumes of Grass's catalogue raisonn?, but the books have been delayed until September.)

His English is surprisingly good, especially considering how little chance he has had to speak it. An interpreter accompanied him everywhere but was rarely needed. He was also escorted by his German editor, an assistant to his German publisher, a secretary, his American publicist and, shadowing him constantly, the German media, which filmed American reporters and American readers asking Grass questions about German history. The controversy won't die.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine -- the leading German paper-- "is still going after me," the writer said, neither boasting nor complaining but merely stating a fact. His critics, he added, "ignored the book. Sometimes I have a feeling they were jealous that I was always able to stay independent of money, of power." But the people got it. At public appearances, he recounted, they would come up to him and say for the first time they understood their fathers, their uncles.

This seemed to me rampant ego. A book that made Germans rethink their family dynamics? Books don't change things, I wrote in my notebook, except his.

A few hours later, at the 92nd Street Y, , a packed crowd watched Amos Elon, an Israeli writer from the same generation as Grass, do battle with the novelist. "I'm trying to put myself in your frame of mind," Elon said, making clear how difficult he found the task. "Your own uncle was summarily executed ... and still you thought this was a just cause? Your own uncle?"

Egged on by Elon, Grass said that even after the war, as an American POW, he was slow to realize the truth. He thought the death camps were propaganda.

"But you saw with your own eyes," exclaimed Elon. He noted that Grass realized immediately that the Americans treated their black soldiers as inferior, but "it took you a year to decide the Nazis were criminals."

"I was a stupid young boy, who had only his fantasies, his stories," Grass said.

Grass made no excuses for himself, but it wasn't enough for Elon. Afterwards, the novelist shrugged. "I wasn't sure he read the book," he said of Elon, while endlessly autographing copies.

The next night, Grass ventured to a Barnes & Noble. All the seats were filled 45 minutes before the event was to begin. During the Q&A a man stood up: "You let us down. I used to quote you as a moral force." He asked for an apology.

"There are so many judges in this world. You are one of them," Grass said.And then he said he was sorry.

A woman stood up. She spoke with a German accent. "Your books have been important in my life," she said. "They gave me a way to understand my father."


At the New York Public Library, Grass was first scheduled to appear alone.

The event quickly sold out. Then Norman Mailer was added to the bill, and another library auditorium was opened up for those who didn't mind watching the proceedings via closed-circuit TV. This too sold out. The library dubbed the evening, "the 20th century on trial." It's a spectacle that clearly hasn't lost its appeal in the 21st.

Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan interviewed both writers separately before bringing them onstage together6/27/07. He didn't waste much time digging into Grass. "You criticized individuals for their Nazi pasts. Did you ever stop and say, I shouldn't be indulging in this?" he asked in incredulous tones.

As usual, Grass didn't spare himself -- he implied that joining up was the rebellion of "a nasty boy" against a father he despised -- but O'Hagan, like Elon, would not relent.

Support came finally from Mailer, who looked small and round and frail, kind of like the aged Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings. Mailer noted this might well be one of his last public appearances. The ability to hear was going, he said, and the rest of him wasn't doing too well either. But the mind was as lucid as ever. He snapped off quips ("at my age, you have to cling to your enjoyments, and paranoia is one of them"), and ruminated on his failure to win the Nobel Prize.

It wasn't politics that soured his chances, he declared; it was stabbing his second wife with a pen knife in 1960. "The Swedes are very intelligent people and they're proud of their prize, and they're damned if they want to give their prize to a guy who is a wife stabber and as sour and bitter as I am, and I don't think I can blame them," he said.

For all the reams of copy in which he has probed his own psyche, Mailer has never written about the stabbing. He never felt ready: "If you can't do it so it enlarges not only your own focus, but the focus of others, you're better off not writing about it."

Something similar, he felt, was true of Grass. He had waited until he was ready for his confession. In his case the moment finally came, and he has now produced a masterpiece. The extract in the New Yorker, Mailer said, was "certainly the best thing" in the magazine for a decade.

Whether the focus of others has been enlarged is less certain. Grass never made the obvious comment to his baying interviewers, although he intimated it to me, and it was clearly in his mind: Stop being so righteously sure that you would always know how to act morally, even in a democracy where you won't be killed for protesting. It's only now, hundreds of billions of dollars and uncounted deaths later, that the American public thinks the Iraq War was a bad idea.

At the reception, Grass greeted some admirers and gave me his take on the evening ("Always the same questions!"). Then, with a copy of Onion in hand, he ambled over to Mailer, who was in a wheelchair. Grass began to inscribe the book to him.

With Mailer's handsome praise for Grass still echoing in my ears, I expected something that would mark the moment as historic. Heller is dead, Vonnegut is dead. But here were the last two great novelists of World War II, in the same room for probably the last time.

I peered over Grass's shoulder, hoping for something inspired, on the level of James Jones inscribing From Here to Eternity to Mailer, "my most feared friend, my dearest rival."

Alas, nothing like that here. Grass He wrote that the book was for Norman Mailer and then, shunning all emotion, merely signed his name.

David Stretifeld is a business reporter for the Los Angeles Times. This piece will appear in his work in progress, "Mit Romanschriftstellern Leben" ("Living with Novelists").

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company